An Eye On London

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The Woods Of Finchley and Highgate

The path through Highgate Wood leading to Queen’s Wood Nature Reserve

Though it is hard to imagine today North London ,very much like South London in this respect, was once covered in a thick canopy of trees and ancient woodlands, some dating back to prehistoric times and beyond . Modern house building, suburban sprawl and the expansion of London and its artery of transport networks have done for most of these woodlands and geographically altered the ecology of the city for ever. From Dulwich in the south to Highgate in the north and all points in between there once existed a thick spread of mighty English Oak trees alongside Hornbeam,Mountain Ash, Silver Birch, Elder, Hazel, Sycamore, Maple and Hawthorn to satisfy the cravings of the most demanding of carpenters. In North London this Great Park, as it was known, sheltered life and gave life though nearly all of it is now gone and yet in places and by foot the visitor is able to glimpse the tiniest surviving remainder of the once ancient and mighty woods and marvel at what once filled these parts.

Cherry Tree Wood, a small though partially dense wood, is squeezed into green space between suburban housing sprawl and the track embankment opposite East Finchley underground station. At first glance the park appears to be popular amongst mothers and their young children until you realise that all parks, woodland or green space with a play area is popular with all parents in all parts of London. It’s not a large park but it’s very hospitable and at just over five hectares there isn’t that much of it left. It is a reminder of what once was. A short walk away down a suburban avenue is Highgate Wood which, at thirty-eight hectares is bigger, denser and darker. Once inside Highgate Wood it becomes apparent that this was once even more substantial than it is and though teeming with dog walkers at various times of the day it has the feel of a great wood. Highgate Wood is cared for and looked after by the ‘Friends of Highgate Wood’ who do a worthwhile job of maintaining the paths and ensuring that the trees are trimmed when they need to be and the paths maintained and that everything within its confines runs tickety-boo. As I walked though the ‘friends’ were hard at it maintaining a fence and repairing a damaged thicket.

The short walk from Cherry Tree Wood to Highgate Wood allows you to imagine a London nestling between two great ridges at Highgate and further south at Dulwich, below the Crystal Palace transmitter. London sprawled across further smaller mounds and hillocks and marshland, rivers and streams. The view from Highgate Village is an outstanding vista across the artificial peaks of the City of London and beyond towards Blackheath, Woolwich and Kent.

Highgate Wood is dark, nestling in the hillside then descends down into what feels like the bottom of a crater in Queen’s Wood. Both woods are separated by the main Muswell Hill Road which connects the upper end of the Archway Road to Muswell Hill Broadway. Both are different woods and have a different feel about them. Queen’s Wood has a lively cafe which doubles as a Visitor’s Centre, of sorts.On the day I passed through there was a meeting in progress of ‘The friends of Queen’s Wood’ who, I’m assured, do a lot of good work and maintain the cared-for feeling that the Wood has. As I sat with my tea and cake they debated and deliberated and nodded earnestly to this proposal and that and ended by talking to a young father who thanked them for their hard work. All cooed appreciatively. Like Cherry Tree Wood the Queen’s Wood has spent time and energy planning and building tree-walks and other activities for youngsters to enjoy. This is what gave it, to my mind, an advantage over those that govern Highgate Wood.

‘The wood is an ancient oak-hornbeam woodland, which features English oak and occasional beech which provide a canopy above cherry, field maple, hazel, holly, hornbeam, midland hawthorn, mountain ash and both species of lowland birch. The scarce Wild Service Tree (which is evidence of the Woods’s ancient origin) is scattered throughout the wood.’ -Wiki

Emerging from the south-eastern side of Queen’s Wood I climbed a stiff path into Priory Gardens and at the end of the road sits Highgate Underground station. A great walk over: three different woods and a great cafe in which to end your tramp. Hard to beat, really.

Horsenden Hill – The Highest Point in NW London

Photo by Vin Miles – BBC Website

Horsenden Hill with a view of six counties and ten London Boroughs from the top

Horsenden Hill is neither mountainous nor is it hard to climb and it may not be the first name that springs to mind when planning a walk in north west London but it is worth your time and the effort to walk to its summit. Its location provides a wonderful antidote to a trudge through the hinterland of warehouses, business parks and over burdened roads which sit north of the A40 London to Oxford road. I approached the Hill after a morning jaunt along the Grand Union Canal followed by a quick turn northward and across the fields.Though it’s only 85m in height the walk through the woods and across the meadow had me breathing shortly. As you clear the woods there are a couple of benches which those with the time use to watch the planes landing and taking off at Heathrow Airport. After a couple more gates you reach the path that takes you to the top of Horsenden Hill. The hill is a scenic spot which is a great place to eat your sandwiches, have a picnic or just lie on your back and watch the House Martins and Swallows swoop above you or trace the vapour trails of competing planes.

The hill has been in use for some seven thousand years from the original Stone Age dwellers to troops manning a gun placement during the Second World War. The hill’s connection to the Roman era was that it was the site of a small fort or a look out post. By the fourteenth century Medieval farmers had control of the site and archaeological finds indicate that a wide range of crops – wheat, barley, corn, rye and peas – were grown here.The hill is above the remains of Horsenden’s Ancient Wood which is now so small and has been reduced to a small copse which the Capital Ring cuts through.

As the hill sits north of Wembley Stadium it is hard to avoid noticing the ‘stadium of the bland’ and it’s banal archway but there is also a visitor’s centre, a cafe, craft shops and a public toilet to wipe away that particular memory once you descend.

Wimbledon Common on the Capital Ring

The Windmill on Wimbledon Common

I love this description of Wimbledon Common by Walter Johnson in 1912 and as it can’t be bettered I’ll include it in it’s entirety:

“He does not know Wimbledon Common who is not familiar with its labyrinths of leafy glades, its tangled thickets of wild red rose, bramble, and honeysuckle; who has not often traversed its turfy plateau and had the perfumes of odoriferous herbs borne in upon his senses; who has not pondered over its rusty pebble, and wondered whence they came; tried to acquaint himself with what may be gleaned of local history; First of all, to the Conservators of the Common, to whom we really owe very much, one may appeal for the preservation of the heath in its wild state… one prays earnestly that the Common be not vulgarised… by making this lovely spot ordinary – a kind of level, well-ordered suburban park, for this windswept Common is not ordinary; it stands alone, and is therefore priceless”.

The Common is anything but ordinary nor what I would consider suburban. It attracts visitors who come to exercise, stretch a leg, yarn, ramble or just pass time under its shaded boughs. Types of person drawn to this beautiful managed woodland range from earnest dog walkers of all ages (and some considerably older than you might imagine!), walkers brandishing maps (and those without) , horse riders, coach trippers and denizens of the local elderly care homes for whom the Common provides a fantastic opportunity for exercise, pleasure and an alternative to sitting indoors and slipping from view of the world.

The car park is a good starting point as it is there that the cafe, toilet and entrance to the windmill museum all cluster. The tea and flapjack I can recommend and do so! Once you set off then head in the direction of the Queen’s Mere which takes you rambling through the woods, down and up the hill, following the path and across the golf course. There are many paths to choose from once you’re in and most seemed peaceful, smothered in leaves and very quiet on the day I visited: less dogs unleashed here, also. On a very hot day twisted bracken and leaves lay strewn around and after taking in the lay of the land I decided there and then that I can’t wait until winter to re-visit here, to see it stripped of its summer clothing and bare. You see, a fresh perspective in a new season is not just the obligation of a photographer but of anyone who has a love of the landscape and this Common has a handsome prospect apparent from the moment you dig your heels into its rich, loam soil. There are plenty of benches within the woods to sit and gather your thoughts or to simply watch the geese or just people-watch: whiling away some time on the tree tinged shore of the Queen’s Mere is probably the best use of a walker’s time.

A very English setting for a pathway

When you’re up for moving you may set off down the slight incline which ultimately leads you to the A3 and the Robin Hood gate and entrance to Richmond Park. As you descend the slope there is a rather large war memorial on your right shielded from view by the tall thicket of bushes and towering trees which make this path such a pleasure. This is also close to Putney Vale Cemetery, slightly further up the incline and close to a different path.

I have mixed memories of the cemetery as this was the site of a memorial service and burial I attended with some forty to fifty others of a good friend of mine. His name was Sam and he was in his late thirties. He died from mental health complications that none of us seemed to understand nor know about and with neither parents alive nor his family in attendance it was us, his loyal but ill-informed friends, that had to see him off to the next world. The vicar assured us that it had been the best turn-out he had seen for some time considering he was to be buried in a rather un-assuming plot. If nothing else we ensured through our collection, the last big whip-round, that he would have a grave stone and be remembered with some dignity despite the condition in which he died.This walk was the first time I’d been close to the cemetery since his burial some years ago.

Ahead lies the A3 and Richmond Park and I’ll end the South-Western Parks at this juncture as I’ve written a fairly long piece on Richmond earlier in the blog.Once I tired of Richmond town and its various and numerous watering holes it was across the Thames and onto the paths of the Regent Canal to the west of London and the path to Harrow-on-the-Hill.

 

 

How do we imagine The Brent River Valley?

Part of the bank below Bittern’s Field along the Brent River Valley which was underwater days before.

Leg 8 Osterley Lock to Greenford (4.8 miles or 7.8km)

It requires no effort for Londoners to become detached from the land on which the streets and roads that we daily traverse are built. We know that if we walk a path or a pavement or a road or a track it will take us to our destination though the land on which such routes are built flows in a different direction beneath our feet. Through jaded eyes we view London as a flat plan view map and a series of lines, grids, symbols and colours on a map and grow accustomed to travelling with our finger along coloured lines punctuated with the names of streets, roads or places of interest. Often we fail to note the topography of the city beneath our feet or before our peripheral vision or, indeed, towering above our heads as we are consumed by time and the economic imperative. Very often as Londoners we go where we are herded and guided by the paving slabs and the tar macadam or now, in this age of GPS, by the pulsing Map App in our hand.

Yet there is another London we can see and touch and hear if we listen and smell and look for it. It surprises the visitor to learn that Brent is the name given to a river but that has to be understood before grappling with the concept of  a river valley in Brent. The river exists and the valley through which it courses is prone to flooding in periods of heavy rain. Yet the average citizen fails to imagine London as an area scarred by a series of swollen, brooding arteries bursting their banks and saturating golf courses and flood plains. That vision belongs to the Severn or the Thames of rural Oxford or Gloucester but not inner London.

It occurred to me,as it probably does to many others, when speeding through these valleys and canopied areas in motor vehicles or aboard public transport that our vision is immune to the changes in topography unless the landscape alters visually in some startling form. Only when we begin to walk the ways and paths of London, free from the paving and the tar macadam, are we able to make sense of the topography and the simple, unspoiled beauty of such places as Brent Meadow or, indeed, the flooded plain of the The Brent River Valley.

John Furse

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